Freedom beyond Borders

By Feola, Christopher J. | The Quill, July/August 1999 | Go to article overview

Freedom beyond Borders


Feola, Christopher J., The Quill


First Amendment not an absolute when it collides with other cultures and laws on the Internet

We interrupt the latest Feola diatribe-entitled, if memory serves, "A hideously boring 473-part series devoted to the use of insanely complicated programming to solve user-interface problems"-for a completely different and unrelated ongoing Feola diatribe.

We'll return to "I am Curious: Browser" next month after a little chat about the perils the First Amendment faces in a wired world.

Yes, we know what you are thinking, gentle reader. "Now wait just one dang minute. Every September you scream and carry on about the First Amendment online. Can't you just wait until then and be ignored on your regular schedule?"

Sorry we can't do that-tempting though that offer is, rest assured.

There's news of the perils to the First, plans to defend it, and how you can help that need to be discussed.

Here's the lowdown. The First Amendment is under unprecedented assault online: 0 Ernst Zundel is facing criminal prosecution in Toronto for a neo-Nazi Web site owned and operated by a California woman who "consults" with him about its content. Zundel is being prosecuted by Canada's Human Rights Commission because that country's laws prohibit the use of phone lines to spread hate messages. Canadian politicians are considering strengthening this law to cover "hate" material stored on hard drives.

Cornell University is being sued for libel in England under British libel laws for allowing a student to post messages to Usenet through its servers three years ago, according to The New York Times.

America Online shut down a Web site that criticized the Orange County Register after the Register filed suit against the anonymous site creator and subpoenaed AOL for the creator's identity. AOL also handed over the name of its member, apparently a disgruntled Register employee, according to Editor & Publisher.

A judge has halted mass e-mailings by a former Intel employee critical of the company in a case that could have far-reaching free speech implications. The judge took what legal experts say is the unprecedented step of ordering Ken Hamidi not to send any more messages to Intel.

We tend to assume that the Internet will bring the freedom of speech long enjoyed by Americans to every corner of the Earth. That is not a foregone conclusion, however; indeed, it is possible that Americans' First Amendment freedoms may be damaged as other countries bring cultural and legal forces to bear on global firms.

In May, the American Press Institute's Media Center held a conference entitled "Freedom Beyond Borders: The Future of the First Amendment in Cyberspace" to look at these issues.

(Full Feola Disclosure: I was the founding director of the Media Center; Freedom Beyond Borders was the last of the so-called Feola Fests. By the time you read this, I will have left the Media Center to become senior editor for interactive commerce and technology for Belo Interactive.)

The conference was an informal working session-a combination of roundtable discussions and small group brainstorming sessions. Participants included science fiction author Melissa Scott; Lydia Fish, the leading authority on folk songs of the Vietnam War; Richard Rosenberg, vice president of Electronic Frontier Canada; Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Chris Gulker of Apple Computers; David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center; and Vivian Vahlberg, director of joumalism programs for the Robert R_ McCormick Tribune Foundation. (A complete list of guests and conference proceedings is on the Web at http://www.mediacenter.org)

A case in point: Rosenberg pointed out that the Zundel case, which was still in court as of the conference, was the Canadian criminal prosecution of what was physically a U.S. publication, since the Web server in question is located in California. …

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